Edge of the Axe

B&W, 1960, 91 mins. 49 secs.
Directed by Charles Frend
Starring Michael Craig, Peter Cushing, Bernard Lee, George Sanders, Elizabeth Seal, André Morell
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Oden (DVD (UK R2 PAL), VCI (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

B&W, 1960, 81 mins. 28 secs.
Directed by Roy and John Boulting
Starring Tony Britton, VIrginia Maskell, Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, Ian Bannen, Thorley Walters, Spike Milligan
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Network Releasing (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)

B&W, 1962, 100 mins. 19 secs.
Directed by Quentin Lawrence
Starring Peter Cushing, Stanley Baker, Mai Zetterling, Nigel Green
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Network Releasing (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)

Color, 1968, 308 mins.
Directed by
Starring Peter Cushing, Nigel Stock, Madge Ryan, Ann Bell, Nick Tate, Gary Raymond
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), A&E (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

Color, 1971, 86 mins. 27 secs. / 82 mins. 50 secs.
Directed by Robert Hartford-Davis
Starring Peter Cushing, Patrick Macnee, Patrick Mower, Alex Davion, Edward Woodward, Johnny Sekka, Madeleine Hinde
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), ESC (Blu-ray) (France R0 HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Something Weird / Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

Color, 1974, 89 mins. 32 secs.
Directed by Pierre Grunstein
Starring Peter Cushing, Alida Valli, Bernard Menez, Miou-Miou, Nathalie Courval, Stéphane Shandor
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)

Following on the heels of its Cone of Silencedual boxes devoted the Continental European output of Christopher Lee, Cone of SilenceSeverin Films turned its attentions to his frequent fellow star (in Hammer productions and otherwise), Peter Cushing, for a 2023 Blu-ray set entitled Cushing Curiosities. Unlike the Lee releases, this one is almost entirely British -- plus a confounding Greek-shot partial U.K. production and the actor's one vampire acting role for a wild French comedy. If you're looking for straight-up horror, you've definitely come to the wrong place; however, if you're a Cushing fan this is a welcome treasure chest of genre-spanning roles both leading and supporting collected from a rich, 13-year period, and each one has been thankfully rescued from falling between the cracks. The set is also highly recommended for the inclusion of the superb new 200-page book by Jonathan Rigby, Peter Cushing: A Portrait in Six Sketches, which delivers an insightful look at the actor's life and work by honing in on specific transitional periods that made him the legendary name he is today.

First up on disc one is 1960s' Cone of Silence, an aviation drama that functions best as a showcase for a slew of familiar character actors (including some Hammer names). Also shown as Trouble in the Sky in America, this one was already two decades into Cushing's career and released during a solid year that also saw his starring roles in The Brides of Dracula, The Flesh and the Fiends, and The Sword of Sherwood Forest. Loosely inspired by a 1952 Italian plane crash and a subsequent novel by David Beaty, the film begins with an ill-fated flight from Ranjibad piloted by Captain George Gort (James Bond staple Lee) whose co-pilot dies in a crash. Gort is accused of being at fault and falls under the supervision of Captain Hugh Dallas (Craig) to determine his competence, while Gort's daughter Cone of SilenceElizabeth (Seal) believe her father is blameless and also strikes up a potential romance with Dallas. More intrigue ensues during Gort's next flight with the shifty Captain Clive Judd (Cushing), with an errant chunk of hedge in the wheels seemingly at fault for another airline incident and further investigation raising more Cone of Silencequestions about what could really be at fault.

Efficiently directed by Ealing Studios veteran Charles Frend and shot in impressive black-and-white scope by Arthur Grant (The Devil Rides Out, The Curse of the Werewolf), this is a modest but engaging mystery of sorts with some small-ish but substantial roles for the likes of George Sanders (as a smooth-talking barrister), Hammer favorite André Morell, Gordon Jackson, Marne Maitland, and Kiss of the Vampire's unforgettable Noel Willman, among others. This one has been around on home video in fuzzy but okay transfers for years including a 2009 British DVD from Odeon and a U.S. one from VCI the following year, but the Severin Blu-ray easily blows them away with a rich, crisp presentation courtesy of a 2K scan of a dupe negative by the BFI. No issues here at all; the DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is also excellent and features optional English SDH subtitles. Also on the disc is an entire "Cushing Curios" section that kicks off with a fun color newsreel (2m19s) showing Cushing's passion for miniature model soldiers paralleling his own interest in doing military roles on film. After that you four fascinating illustrated audio interviews with Cushing: a Halloween episode of The Funster Show (13m10s) with Paul Carrington quizzing the actor about his "benevolent, gentle-hearted" personality versus his famous horror roles; The Guardian Interview with Cushing (played as an alternate track for the main feature), also heard earlier on the U.K. disc of Corruption; an interview with Terence Fisher: Master of Gothic Cinema author Tony SuspectDalton (63m46s) Suspectabout virtually his entire life from his upbringing onward; and a 1973 interview (12m55s) about his residence in Whitstable (accompanied by modern footage of the neighborhood) and his memories of his wife, Helen, who had passed away to years earlier.

On disc two we get the U.S. Blu-ray premieres of two British thrillers released earlier in the U.K. from the sadly now defunct Network releasing, starting with another 1960 film, Suspect. A fairly typical time killer of the time, the film centers around a secret scientific project in Britain to develop a bacteria that could be used to combat potential disease outbreaks. However, the government is paranoid about what could happen if the breakthrough is turned into a weapon against humanity by foreign agents, so they order it to be kept under lock and key. The scientists (including Cushing) aren't too thrilled about the suppression of their findings, which opens the door for embittered, armless Korean war vet Alan Andrews (Bannen) to manipulate his ex-fiancee and caregiver, Lucy (Maskell), into maneuvering one of the scientists into committing a potentially treasonous act. Oh, and you also have Donald Pleasence hanging around Suspectas a very obvious Soviet spy, SuspectThorley Walters, and Spike Milligan as the comic relief office cleaner.

Adapted from a novel by Nigel Balchim called A Sort of Traitors published in 1949, Suspect was a quick and very low-budget effort for the formidable directing team of John and Roy Boulting, who were better known for comedies before and after this like I'm All Right Jack and Heavens Above! (as well as later Hayley Mills films like Twisted Nerve and The Family Way). The subject matter is really ambitious and sprawling given the fact that this actually takes place with a small number of characters in limited settings, making it an interesting detour for just about everyone involved as it was reportedly cranked out in a swift 17 days of available studio time. The Network Blu-ray in 2021 featured an image gallery and a PDF campaign book, but the Severin release easily bests it thanks to a thorough, entertaining commentary by Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons who point out the changes from the source novel (including updating some details), cover the Boulting brothers' careers around this time, and have plenty of info about all the major cast members. They also have fun pointing out some clever cost-cutting tactics that could easily fly past The Man Who Finally Diedmost The Man Who Finally Diedviewers.

Sharing space on the same disc is The Man Who Finally Died, directed by Quentin Lawrence (who also helmed The Crawling Eye and one of Cushing's finest showcases, Cash on Demand). The always solid Stanley Baker stars as Joe Newman, a Bavarian expatriate and pianist who's been living in the U.K. since the end of World War II. Upon returning to his homeland (where he's known by his birth name, Joachim) thanks to a message from his father, his attempts to learn the whereabouts of dad are all met with claims that the man is dead (there's a funeral going on upon Joe's arrival, after all), plus stories about the man escaping to the West and settling down with a wife. Joe's dogged pursuit of the truth puts him in the crosshairs of a very active and current international threat.

Adapted from a TV serial also directed by Lawrence, The Man Who Finally Died is given plenty of gloss with its impressive monochrome CinemaScope lensing and another horde of great character actors obfuscating things to varying degrees including Cushing, Nigel Green, Mai Zetterling, Eric Portman (great as the local representative of the law), and a fun role for The Man Who Finally DiedNiall MacGinnis who gets to do a nod of sorts to his big send-off The Man Who Finally Diedfrom Night of the Demon. Virtually everything written about this film compares it to The Third Man, unavoidably so given the nature of the plot and the not dissimilar harpsichord-crazy score, though the fact that this is further removed from the end of World War II gives it a far less intense and sinister edge. Luckily you have that cast on board to carry you through, and any chance to see Baker and Green sharing the frame together is automatically worth a look. Again this one has been around in a nice HD scan from Studiocanal in the U.K., but the Severin Blu-ray (which looks identical and is gorgeous) beefs it up with a great audio commentary by Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw who really dig into the backgrounds of the director and cast, the film's critical reception, the trend of turning British TV projects into features, and much more.

Discs three and four are devoted entirely to all of the extant material for Sherlock Holmes, a 1968 series of Arthur Conan Doyle adaptations for the BBC starring Cushing as the legendary sleuth of Baker Street and Nigel Stock returning as Watson after a 1965 stint with Douglas Wilmer. Of the 16 color episodes starring Cushing (who quickly became worn down by the The Man Who Finally Diedbreakneck schedule), only a handful survive intact and have been issued on DVD in the U.K. by the BBC and the U.S. by A&E. Here in the Blu-ray set we get the The Man Who Finally Diedshows looking as good as they could given the fact that they were shot on tape and come from the only surviving masters, while extracts of otherwise lost tales are also included. We start off with "episode 1," the earliest surviving of the '68 run and the third one to be aired: A Study in Scarlet (50m26s), in which Holmes and Watson are summoned to an abandoned house where a dead American has been discovered with the word "RACHE" written in blood on the wall. The death by poisoning and a woman's ring lead our heroes on a trail of conspiracy involving an international crime ring. The first written Holmes story, this one has been adapted many times (most definitely in the later TV series with Jeremy Brett) and is still plenty of fun to watch here with Cushing (frequently sporting a top hat and gloves) still in fine form as Holmes almost a decade after his first classic interpretation for Hammer in 1959's The House of the Baskervilles. (Incidentally, a much older Cushing played Holmes again as a one-off production in 1984, The Masks of Death, which was everywhere on VHS back in the day). This episode (which looks nice apart from some occasional rolling tape damage) can be played with an optional 30-second countdown clock and sports a new commentary by Kim Newman and David Stuart Davies, which goes a fine job of untangling the history of this series including its official title and season ranking, the process of licensing Doyle's short stories and novels back then (with anything featuring Moriarty off limits for a while), and the ins and outs of all the participants seen here as well as the narrative traits running throughout this show.

Also on the third disc is a The Man Who Finally Diedtwo-episode adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (51m52s and 51m39s), which finds Cushing doing his second go-round at the legendary The Man Who Finally Diedmystery novel with a far more subdued tone than the flamboyant Hammer one. Partially shot on location at Dartmoor, this sticks to the book fairly closely as we get the familiar saga of Sir Henry Baskerville (Gary Raymond from Traitor's Gate and Jason and the Argonauts) and his efforts to avoid his family curse, namely a supernatural hound supposedly haunting the nearby moors with a taste for any of his family members. This time Davies and Barry Forshaw do the honors for commentaries on both episodes (best listened to straight through) as they go through the unique aspects of this take on the material, the shooting locations, the history of the source novel, the inevitable comparisons to other versions, and Cushing's version of Holmes seen here compared to the one before. Disc four houses the remaining three episodes -- The Boscombe Valley Mystery (50m54s), The Sign of Four (52m28s), and The Blue Carbuncle (50m42s) -- with Holmes and Watson tackling a case of possibly staged patricide on a family farm, a string of sinister dart murders committed across London (from the second Holmes novel), and a seemingly stolen gem that poses a Christmastime challenge. The Holmesiana gets thrown around fast and furious in these, including an appearance by the familiar Irene Adler, and while Cushing may have been aggravated by the production at this point, it doesn't really show in his performances here. This time the commentaries shuffle a bit with Newman and Forshaw doing Boscombe, Newman and Davies doing The Sign of Four, and Newman and Forshaw for Carbuncle; these are all up to the same level as they shuffle through the evolution of the series, the lost episodes, Cushing's career in the late '60s and the state of his personal life, and the histories behind the literary sources including their other adaptations and Doyle's own approach to how his material was published (and sometimes retracted for a while). Also here is an illustrated Cushing interview with Davies (18m9s) about the series and Doyle's own perspective on the character, which provides some fascinating insight into how Cushing went about the role and his awareness of preceding versions including the Basil Rathbone movies. Finally Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons present a commentary look at the series' lost segments (8m21s) featuring scraps from six episodes, with "recovered" color here for what was originally aired in black-and-white.

Then Bloodsuckerson disc five the set starts to really emphasize the "Curiosities" part of its title with one of the most perplexing projects of Cushing's career: Bloodsuckers, also shown Bloodsuckersas Freedom Seeker and Incense for the Damned. Shot in the U.K., Greece, and Cyprus, this highly troubled production ended up being credited to the nonexistent director "Michael Burrowes" when its actual director, Robert Hartford-Davis (The Black Torment, Corruption, Beware My Brethren), didn't complete the film. Either the production ran out of money during filming or Hartford-Davis became so distracted and involved in the local scene that he lost track of what was happening, depending on the source, but regardless what resulted was a clearly incomplete piece of work that had to be cobbled together in the editing room. The producers also went back and shot a protracted drugs, sex, and murder orgy sequence for racier markets (i.e., France) featuring Jean Rollin icon Françoise Pascal, playing a murder victim in the original footage who looks nothing like her. No matter how you see it, the first half hour or so is an outrageous editorial mess with narration and confusing character intros trying to fill in the gaps of the narrative based on the bestselling novel Doctors Wear Scarlet by Simon Raven. Stick with it though as the film actually does become worthwhile and quite compelling after that, largely due again to its wild cast you can't imagine all congregating for a project this bizarre.

At a prestigious college, don Richard Fountain (The Devil Rides Out's Mower) takes off for Greece to do some mythology research and suddenly becomes incommunicado. His girlfriend Penelope (Hinde), daughter of the college's provost Walter Goodrich (Cushing), decides to take a Greek trip to find out what happened to him and brings along Tony (Davion) and Bob (Sekka), and they first get clues from the local Derek Longbow (Macnee) about the suspicious circles into which their colleague has fallen. What ensues is a stew of sacrifices, sex, a vampire expert played by The Wicker Man's Edward Woodward, strange monks, and a blood-fixated cult leader. Not surprisingly, this film had a marginal and very rocky distribution history where its marquee-level names couldn't stop it from being dumped onto regular horror double bills including a U.S. run with Bloodsuckersthe Filipino film Blood Thirst, a pairing recreated on DVD in 2001 from Something Weird via its distribution through Image Entertainment. That version was taken from an okay 35mm print, with some gray market horror packs throwing this one in and an Australian DVD turning up in 2005 from Umbrella. The first Bloodsuckerstruly good-looking release came on Blu-ray in 2022 from French label ESC as part of its "British Terrors" line, framed at 1.66:1 and looking really gorgeous. The original English and surprisingly excellent French dub are included along with a French-language presentation by Nicolas Stanzick (18m49s).

The Severin Blu-ray is very significant as it reinstates the full orgy sequence for the first time in ages, now bringing the running time up from 82 to 86 minutes. Whether that's a good thing will depend on how much you love watching naked people writhe around and stab someone, which goes on for a very long time and features some relatively graphic frontal nudity that would have kept this off the normal horror circuit at the time. Again the transfer is excellent with everything but the orgy (pulled from a print) derived from the original negative. Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons do the commentary honors here, laying out the complex history of the film, the background of its director, the fidelity to the source novel, and the various reasons it turned out the way it did. Definitely essential listening if you want to find out more about this one. 1961's Stranger in the City (22m24s) is a black-and-white short film by Hartford-Davis, co-produced by future British smut titan Derek Ford. What you get here is a jazzy, dialogue-light look at a typical day in London where bums wake up at the crack of dawn, rich businessman dine in luxury while they're driven to work, people go to see Jack the Ripper at the movies, acting students and street performers do their thing, jazz musicians entertain the patrons at a nightclub, and of course, some covert residents slip in to see a stage striptease act. In "Daddy's Girl" (17m21s), Jean Hartford-Davis, daughter of the director, provides a lot of welcome biographical detail about the sometimes mysterious filmmaker, while "Bite Me!" (20m20s) features Tigon: Blood On A Budget author John Hamilton going into more detail about the director's education and directorial career that kicked in after producing That Kind of Girl. Then Pascal turns up in "The Trip" (16m53s) to offer what she remembers about being recruited to shoot her big scene while she was in the U.K. working on There's a Girl in My Soup and enjoying her time on set with (and without) Peter Sellers. In "Hydra Phonics" (9m59s), sound recordist Tony Dawe recalls how his working relationship with the director led to him being on this production, being brought in at the last minute for what would be a highly unorthodox production. Finally the disc wraps up with the alternate Tender DraculaFreedom Seeker title sequence and the U.S. theatrical Tender Draculatrailer.

Finally disc six delivers what will be the biggest selling point for many, the global Blu-ray debut of the strangest film in Cushing's career: Tender Dracula, a French horror fantasy comedy also released as La Grande Trouille (The Big Scare) including its appearance on French DVD. This one actually preceded Christopher Lee's foray into French monster comedy, Dracula and Son, by two years, but it received far less distribution and has only been accessible in the U.S. for years on the gray market video circuit (including fan subbed and dubbed options). The film was picked up in its English-language version by U.S. distributor Scotia American, but it doesn't appear to have circulated much outside of a few test market engagements-- understandably so given the experience likely left most patrons scratching their heads. It's also worth noting that this was roughly a contemporary of The Rocky Horror Show whose film version a year later has a climax that bears a striking similarity to the one seen here. Plus you get Peter Cushing's only screen appearance as a vampire, a whimsical musical interlude sung by two nude women, an S&M torture dungeon with Suspiria's Alida Valli, and lots of Tender Draculameta commentary on the horror genre and its contradictory relationship to the nourishing power of love.

Popular horror actor MacGregor (Cushing) has thrown a wrench in the plans of his usual production company, thanks to his announced switch to only making projects devoted to romance instead. Screenwriters Alfred (Dracula and Son's Menez) and Boris (Shandor), as well as actresses Marie (Miou-Miou) and Madeline (Courval), are enlisted into visiting MacGregor's castle home to talk him into returning to horror fare. Tender DraculaInstead they find that the star is really committing to his vampire bit so much that he might be a real-life bloodsucker, and he's also deeply devoted to his wife, Heloise (Valli). What follows is a macabre dress-up dinner, followed by a feigned suicide, lessons in love, and a twist or two before everyone reaches their unorthodox destinies.

Getting a handle on this film can be tricky if you're expecting a cut-and-dried genre film of one kind or another; instead you get dollops of horror (blood-running taps, a crazy nightmare scene with an ambulatory Miou-Miou sliced in half, etc.), poignant sentiment, songs, striking production design, and a beautifully calibrated performance by Cushing that pays off in a magnificent flashback montage an hour in showing how he fell in love with horror acting. Cushing's own enduring grief over his wife is an unavoidable factor in his performance, giving it an emotional punch beyond the playfulness that truly shows off his comic side. Not for all tastes by any means, especially if you have an aversion to French farce, but this will be a delightful discovery if you're on its wavelength. Tender DraculaThe Blu-ray is also an excellent way to experience it for the first time or to revisit if you've only seen the iffy tape copies floating around; the one challenge is choosing a language track, since the disc has both options with equal drawbacks. The English version features Cushing and Valli's original voice performances, and they're both wonderful; their scenes together really only take flight when watched that way. On the other Tender Draculahand, everyone else is very badly dubbed, especially the now nonsensical musical bits. Switching to the French track whenever Cushing and Valli aren't on screen may be the best way to go if you don't mind having your remote in hand throughout, and optional English-translated or English SDH subtitles are provided for the DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono tracks either way. A commentary by Jonathan Rigby and Kevin Lyons is another worthy addition, focusing quite a bit on Cushing understandably and noting how much he loved and supported this film for its sweet central theme. In "Love Me Tender, Dracula" (15m44s), one-shot director Pierre Grunstein explains how the project came about after he had honed his craft working for Claude Berri on several early films with this paving the way for much subsequent work as a producer in French films. His memories here jibe with the tone of the film as he explains how the low budget also meant he and co-writers Justin Lenoir and Hal Brav were really free to let themselves go. In "Menez of Speaking" (21m10s), Menez recalls how his own Berri connection led to this film (with promises of it being a smash hit), as well as his first meeting with Miou-Miou, his enthusiasm working with established international actors, his perplexed reaction to his first full read of the script (which he compares to The Fearless Vampire Killers), and his struggles to come to terms with the tone even after the film was made. A strange (mostly) English trailer as La Grande Trouille is also included.

Reviewed on January 9, 2024